Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Perhaps claims that are almost certainly false should be fact-checked more thoroughly

If you read Talking Points Memo or the Washington Post, you've probably heard about this story from New York Magazine by up and coming journalist Jessica Pressler:
Late last year, a rumor began circulating at Stuyvesant that a junior named Mohammed Islam had made a fortune in the stock market. Not a small fortune, either. Seventy-two million.

An unbelievable amount of money for anyone, not least a high-school student, but as far as rumors go, this one seemed legit. Everyone at Stuy knew that Mohammed, the soft-spoken son of Bengali immigrants from Queens and the president of the school’s Investment Club, was basically a genius.

As the news spread, Mo’s stock went up. The school paper profiled him, Business Insider included him on a list of “20 Under 20,” and Mo became “a celebrity,” as his friend Damir Tulemaganbetov put it on a recent Friday night at Mari Vanna near Union Square. “A VIP!”
Like [Jordan] Belfort, Mo started with penny stocks. A cousin showed him how to trade. He loved the feeling of risk—the way his hand shook making the trade—but he swore it off after losing a chunk of the money he’d made tutoring. “I didn’t have the balls for it,” he said. He was 9.

It was a while before he was ready to try again. In the meantime, he became a scholar of modern finance, studying up on hedge-fund managers. He was particularly enamored of Paul Tudor Jones. “I had been paralyzed by my loss,” Mo said. “But he was able to go back to it, even after losing thousands of dollars over and over. Paul Tudor Jones says, ‘You learn more from your losses than from your gains.’ ” Mo got into trading oil and gold, and his bank account grew. Though he is shy about the $72 million number, he confirmed his net worth is in the “high eight figures.” More than enough to rent an apartment in Manhattan—though his parents won’t let him live in it until he turns 18—and acquire a BMW, which he can’t drive because he doesn’t yet have a license. Thus, it falls to his father to drive him past Tudor Jones’s Greenwich house for inspiration. “It’s because he is who he is that made me who I am today,” Mo said.
[I emphasized the part about “high eight figures.” It becomes important later.]

Islam fills in some more details on his website:
My interest in finance started at the tender age of 8, but I really started trading when I was 10 years old. I paper traded for a year or so and finally opened a real trading account using my own capital that I saved from entrepreneurial endeavors. 
So we're looking at six or seven years to go from tutoring money to more than fifty million dollars trading part-time. That's a difficult statement to believe but Pressler and her editor at NY Magazine managed to swallow it, as did the New York Post which ran "High school student scores $72M playing the stock market" and CNBC which had Islam and friends scheduled to appear until...

From the New York Observer:
Monday’s edition of New York magazine includes an irresistible story about a Stuyvesant High senior named Mohammed Islam who had made a fortune investing in the stock market. Reporter Jessica Pressler wrote regarding the precise number, “Though he is shy about the $72 million number, he confirmed his net worth is in the ‘high eight figures.’ ” The New York Post followed up with a story of its own, with the fat figure playing a key role in the headline: “High school student scores $72M playing the stock market.”

And now it turns out, the real number is … zero.

In an exclusive interview with Mr. Islam and his friend Damir Tulemaganbetov, who also featured heavily in the New York story, the baby-faced boys who dress in suits with tie clips came clean. Swept up in a tide of media adulation, they made the whole thing up.
The Washington Post picks it up from there:
Then on Monday afternoon, Mo backed out of a spot on CNBC, confessing the $72 million figure was inaccurate. “The attention is not what we expected — we never wanted this hype,” he said. New York, however, stood by the story: “Our story portrays the $72 million figure as a rumor … we did not know the exact figure he has made in trades. However, Mohammed provided bank statements that showed he is worth eight figures, and he confirmed on the record that he’s worth eight figures.”
Just to be clear, the NY editors initially pinned much of their defense on the distinction between $72 million and “high eight figures,” and on the easily faked bank statement provided to the fact checker. Apparently the fact-checker didn't ask to see additional documentation or to speak to the parents (who are, according to the Observer, really pissed).

New York Magazine finally came out with a retraction but even here they don't seem to have learned their lesson:
After the story's publication, people questioned the $72 million figure in the headline, which was written by editors based on the rumored figure. The headline was amended. But in an interview with the New York Observer last night, Islam now says his entire story was made up. A source close to the Islam family told the Washington Post that the statements were falsified. We were duped. Our fact-checking process was obviously inadequate; we take full responsibility and we should have known better. New York apologizes to our readers.
The process would have been inadequate if the claim had been credible; for a story this incredible, it was grossly negligent.

This is not an isolated case. Standards for journalistic accuracy have been dropping for at least a couple of decades, but perhaps more troubling is the disconnect between fact-checking and credibility. Even at the venerable BBC, the most unbelievable of claims is not subjected to any extra scrutiny. Fact-checking has become a CYA process, not something you do because you want to get the story right.


  1. Mark:

    It does seem like journalists are willing to run with just about anything. But is the situation really worse now than it was a few decades ago? Back in the 70s, I remember a general sort of background level of completely bogus news stories on topics such as the Bermuda Triangle, ancient astronauts, the discovery of Noah's Ark, car engines that got 200 miles per gallon, etc. And I think that kind of story would be taken less seriously nowadays.

    But I could be wrong, this is just my general impression.

    1. Andrew,

      Yes, "Chariots of the Gods" does undercut a lot of good-old-days arguments. It is also true that any argument about journalistic trends won't be very robust when we start playing with definitions and metrics, but with all that in mind...

      1. Between the internet and advances in communication, the time and effort required to fact-check has dropped by one, maybe two orders of magnitude in the past few decades while accuracy has not improved and may have gotten worse.

      2. It's true that the Seventies saw a lot of pseudo-science but

      A, It appears to have been a spike largely limited to that decade (it's worth noting that Sunn Classic went out of the documentary business on 1979)

      B, I believe that the respectable press usually distanced itself from these stories

      C. In the less respectable media where "In search of" originally flourished, this sort of thing seems to be making a comeback (as I discovered when my gym added the Discovery Channel to the TVs on the ellipticals).

      D. It should also be noted that it was easier to find actual scientists in the Twentieth Century who were either open to the paranormal (Einstein -- Mental Radio) or were true believers (Jack Parsons -- you wouldn't believe me if I told you). Part of this can be attributed to their having less data than we have now and part to the anything-is-possible feel of the times.

      You are right to point out that there have always been journalists who swallowed hoaxes and unbelievable claims but I would argue there has been a real decline in standards over the past thirty years, though it may not have been as clear or linear as I sometimes think of it.

    2. Mark:

      Yes, a good article could be written about the history of respectable scientists' belief in ESP. There's the Turing quote that I featured on the blog not long ago, there's Heinlein and Campbell (not scientists, of course, but science fiction writers and editors who, I think, considered themselves to be hard-headed and scientific), there's all the fervent anti-ESP writings of Martin Gardner and others, which in retrospect seems a bit over-the-top, as, from a modern perspective, traditional ESP just seems more like a joke.

      Also, Martians, Noah's Ark, etc . . . it just seems that, in some ways, scientific thinking had not fully suffused our culture. Someone like Feynman, with his aggressively scientific attitude to the world, was still somewhat of an exception, and there was a lot more deference to traditional beliefs.

      Sure, there are battles now about creationism and climate denialism, but these seem more to be political rather than scientific battles.

      My thoughts on all this remain incoherent but I think there's something here worth thinking about.